A Review of: Red Ledger by Mary Dalton

CENTRAL QUESTION: How should Newfoundland sound?

A Review of: Red Ledger by Mary Dalton

Stephanie Burt
15 Snaps

Can you find Newfoundland on a map? Canadians can; poetry readers from points south ought to learn. This wildest and easternmost of Atlantic Canada’s provinces, its coast-hugging culture dependent on fishing and shipping, has had its own form of English for centuries (see the amazing Dictionary of Newfoundland English). That coast and its culture now have a living poet worthy of their rough pride. Mary Dalton became semifamous in Canada for Merrybegot (2003), its crackling poems written all in Newfoundland dialect, full of rasping proverbs, unfamiliar nouns, and harsh weather. This bigger sequel uses (mostly) Standard English, and it’s as likely to depict uneasy students in the province’s schools, or taxi drivers in the capital of St. John’s, as to portray village fishermen and midwives.

Despite the shift in this collection, it’s just as resonant, almost as passionate, wider in its range, and just as refreshing as the first, at least to a U.S. ear. Dalton’s attention to hills, coves, and stony paths comes with an attention to odd words (not all of them from dialect) and to the fierce, irregular, spondee-slung rhythms into which those words can fit. Those rhythms can also imitate actions: a mare shaking her head, a woman turning away from a quarrel, a father slouching in church. “November Spell” shows “Tom the horse taking her apple, / quick chomps and the shamble away.” A warbler becomes “a clear arc flaring up / and flitting down into goowiddy / tilting to sea on the Cuckhold’s Cove Road.” (Goowiddy, or gold-withy, is a flowering ground cover.) Those are Dalton’s animals: she’s even better when she lets us listen to people. Here’s a sarcastic comment on eco-activism: “Sealers / with five youngsters for supper and no ready cash / can just fuck off.” As for those cabdrivers, their intercoms enunciate “a twitch of demented riffs,” making “irritable music / authentic as fiddle, / as washboard.”

Dalton makes, as she says the drivers make, a reinvented traditional music, not fixed in time, but beholden to folkways of place. She seeks, too, words that fit the vigor she sees in Newfoundland flora, fauna, even geology: the mountains of Gros Morne National Park “mock the seductions of green” and turn “known signs” of summer—“lacy blossom of cherry, / skirts out for the dance”—into “pointers / to the strange all around: / earth’s mantle upflung, / seafloor outfacing the sky.”

Everywhere Dalton turns, she seems to see salt—a tool for curing fish, a feature of tidal waters, a proverb (“salt of the earth”), a spice for otherwise monotonous fare, a sign both that a way of life might be preserved and that it now seems obsolete. Her longer poems can fail to challenge us, or can sound uneven; sometimes she leaves in near-clichés (that goowiddy later becomes, alas, “flaming gold”). But some short poems stay perfect in their clipped insouciance, and even the thinner works have force in parts.

Dalton’s mix of quick speech, long glimpses, and salt air let her preserve lists, seascape details, botanical lore, the Q & A forms of folk-balladry, as well as ways of speech that animate these sometimes prickly poems. What Dalton adds—what keeps her poems her own—is, first, an ear (nobody sounds like her), and, second, a set of characteristic emotions: raw and unapologetic lust (sexual or topophilic); resentment against the people and trends that threaten the sites she loves; nostalgia for the omnipresent past of a place that may be too completely her own.

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